Ego, Ambition, & Holy Calling

Several years ago, I heard a well-known mega-church personality talk about the imperfect blend of motivations behind every Christian leader who has a platform and a microphone. He said,

“I’m a piece of work. All pastors are. Think about it. What makes me believe I should be standing here on this stage with a microphone in my hand telling all of you what to think and do? That’s pretty messed-up.”

I loved hearing him acknowledge the fact that our motivations are not 100% pure all the time. There is a constant mixture of ego, ambition, and holy calling that fuels our leadership endeavors.

This isn’t necessarily an evil thing.

I’m generally thankful for ambition. Ambition gets stuff done. And I appreciate some of what ego brings to the table too – like good hygiene and social etiquette.

But I also know that left unchecked, ego and ambition will lead us into destructive patterns of behavior. At their core, ego and ambition will always place the self above the other – and that is a problem if we also happen to be following Jesus.

One of the reoccurring themes in Jesus’ private conversations with his disciples was about the nature of Kingdom leadership. Jesus said,

“You know how the leaders in this world flaunt their position and power over their followers, but among you it must be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be a servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become a slave to others. For even I did not come to be served but to serve others and to give my life…” —Matthew 20.25-28

What Jesus told his disciples sounds really good. I want all the leaders who have authority over me to take these instructions seriously.

Also – these instructions are incredibly difficult to follow. Why? Because deep inside, my motivations for doing what I do are a mixture of ego, ambition, and holy calling.

A few weeks ago, I read an excellent post by Jeff Haden – “How to Tell if You’re Following Your Calling or Just Feeding Your Ego.” It’s definitely worth reading the entire article. Here are a few highlights…

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Ego and calling are very different things. Your ego fears not having or doing something. Your calling ears not expressing or being something.

Both ego and calling need to be fed. Ego needs anxiety to survive. Wherever you feel the most insecurity is where your ego will work overtime to “fix.” The ego needs anxiety to pinpoint the problem, then course-corrects by disavowing this pesky aspect of your personality. Unfortunately, what the ego finds annoying or disruptive can also be your greatest gift to the world.

Calling needs silence to survive. A calling is discovered through observation and reflection, which is rarely found in a noisy environment. Listening to your life and discovering what it’s asking of you is your calling – and it requires more silence than most of us are comfortable with.

Both ego and calling produce tangible results.

Ego results in burnout. My favorite definition of burnout is this: burnout is not about giving too much of yourself, it’s about trying to give what you do not possess.

Ego ends in burnout because it’s consuming resources you don’t have in order to push you toward a bigger, better version of yourself.

Calling manifests as fulfillment.

Ego is results-centered and calling is process-centered.

Ego focuses on the result. Because ego wants to manage anxiety by achieving more, it is especially concerned with the results of all this striving. By focusing on the outcome, your ego gets validation that all this work is worth it. Without a satisfactory result, all the striving is pointless.

Calling focuses on the process. A calling reveals itself through self-discovery. Your calling comes from within and can only be revealed by paying attention to how your life is unfolding. Instead of managing the outcome, your calling can handle the stress of ambiguity. It knows that the tension is revealing something that you couldn’t otherwise learn.

Both ego and calling want important things for you.

Ego wants to preserve the self. Ego is concerned with the self and preserving what it wants. The ego may be interested in helping others, but it isn’t inherently motivated by serving others. It is motivated by maintaining and managing your identity.

Calling wants to impact others. A calling might begin with the expression of self, but it moves toward the need of others.

Author Fredrick Buechner says that your calling is, “The place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.”

While your ego does a necessary job of helping you function in the world, it is your calling that creates a more authentic, soulful way to be in the world.

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I want to be more aware of what’s at play in my drive to do and be…

Is this coming from my ego, ambition, or holy calling?


QUESTION: How do you see ego, ambition, and calling at work in your leadership?

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on The Dark Side of Leadership Strengths. Check back tomorrow for “The Underbelly of Christian Leadership,” and on Thursday for “Doing Great Things Without Becoming Darth Vader.”


I am a husband, father, pastor, leader & reader. I love God, love people & love life.

2 Comments to Ego, Ambition, & Holy Calling

  1. I’m very thankful for this last six months and even now, as I’m finding my calling. It’s pretty easy to go from good intention to ego-driven ambition.

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